Aarhus, Denmark (CNN) — As Denmark's "second city," Aarhus is used to Copenhagen grabbing all the attention. But over the past few years, Aarhus has emerged from the capital's shadow, garnering a reputation among travelers as an exciting alternative for a Danish city break.
Aarhus, the country's second-largest city, is located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, about 115 miles northwest of the capital, Copenhagen. With its mix of world-class cuisine, impressive art galleries, attractive architecture and laid-back atmosphere, Aarhus is coming into its own.
Food has been one of the main drivers behind the city's recent emergence as a tourist destination. A clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, informal bistros and a burgeoning street food scene are all contributing factors to its rightful spot on the foodie map.
In February 2019, the city hosted the Michelin Nordic Guide ceremony for the first time, further cementing its reputation as a top gastronomic city.
Because it's relatively small and centralized, Aarhus can easily be explored on foot or by bike.
Aarhus is relatively small, with a population of just under 350,000, and can easily be explored on foot for the most part, with many of the attractions, shops and restaurants confined to a small central area.
Its manageable size combined with its relaxed vibe makes Aarhus an excellent weekend city break destination or a great addition to a Copenhagen trip, being only three hours away by train.
Food and drink
Substans is one of Aarhus' most famous restaurants, having held a Michelin star since 2015. It's set to move location to the new harbor-side Aarhus Ø development in 2020, but for now it's still serving elegant Nordic-style cuisine from its original home in the Latin Quarter.
There is no à la carte menu at Substans, with diners instead choosing one of two multi-course tasting menus, the "Big" (12 courses) or the "Not So Big" (nine courses), which certainly keeps things simple.
The cooking is anything but simple, however, with technical, precise dishes that include thinly sliced scallop dressed with lovage oil and lightly fried pine needles, and pork with onions, a crisp kale leaf and finished with a zesty green tarragon cream.
One of Aarhus' newest and best restaurants, Ghrelin is thoughtful about every ingredient used in a dish.
One of the newest restaurants to open in Aarhus is already one of its best. Ghrelin is run by the charismatic Anders Kristensen and Nicklas Nielsen, who produce sublime dishes that find the right balance between serious and fun.
The meal begins with a succession of snacks, such as deep-fried sausage and pork rind, and a little vol au vent stuffed with chicken liver parfait; plates are playful and fun but pack a serious punch in the flavor department.
Then there's the bread: Small fingers of brioche and rounds of rye are baked continually throughout the night, with a fresh batch arriving at each table every 20 minutes, served with an addictive dill-spiked cream cheese and a freshly churned butter.
Other highlights include a pasta course of ravioli stuffed with Iberico pork and topped with beetroot and truffle, and a main of veal tenderloin with mushroom and port reduction.
Ghrelin, Bernhard Jensens Blvd 125, 8000, +45 30 13 30 04
Standout dishes at rustic bistro Pondus include beef tartare and roast pork cheek.
The younger, more relaxed sibling to Substans, Pondus opened in 2018 by the same owners. The cozy bistro in Aarhus' city center offers some knockout dishes.
The day's menu is listed in chalk on a blackboard. Go for rich beef tartare with beetroot crisps; roast pork cheek served with potato purée and chargrilled lettuce; and goat cheese parfait with blackberries.
The majority of wines at Pondus are made with natural methods using organic grapes and are sourced from small European producers, particularly in France. The friendly staff are happy to make suggestions on which wines pair best with what dishes, and there is always a good selection available by the glass if it's not a whole bottle kind of night.
Pondus Åboulevarden 51, 8000, +45 28 77 18 50
Aarhus Street Food
Occupying an old bus garage, Aarhus Street Food is cheap eats galore, featuring 30 vendors.
Aarhus Street Food
Aarhus is home to Denmark's biggest university and a large student population, so there are plenty of cheap eats around town, too. One of the best places to find a wide variety of wallet-friendly dishes is at Aarhus Street Food. It occupies an old bus garage and features around 30 vendors under its large industrial roof.
The options are global in scope, with everything from Thai and Indian to fish and chips, but one of the best is Stegen & Dellen, which serves traditional Danish pork sandwiches smothered in gravy and topped with mustard and crackling.
In the summer, outdoor bars serving beer from the local brewery Aarhus Bryghus make it a great place to come and drink too.
It's open seven days a week for lunch and dinner throughout the year, except for some public holidays.
Central Food Market
The Central Food Market is another great option for relatively cheap eats. Housed in a building that opened in 1938 as a restaurant and dance hall, it was converted into its current food-focused operation in 2016.
Now it features 10 vendors, communal seating and a centerpiece: a big horseshoe-shaped bar at the entrance that spills into the outdoor courtyard in summer when the doors are left open.
Again, the Danish options are among the best on offer here, and if you are looking to try traditional Smørrebrød (Danish open-faced sandwiches), this is the place to do it. Make your way toward Kähler, where you'll be tempted by a seasonally rotating selection that includes salmon with potato and shrimp salad, and roast beef with honey mustard.
St Pauls Apothek
Located on Jægergårdsgade, a street which is lined with hip bars and restaurants, St Pauls Apothek is the city's premier destination for cocktails. The building, an old chemist's shop originally opened in 1899, now sells potions of a different kind, created by a team of award-winning mixologists.
The "Millionaire" (which won the World Class Competition 2013) encapsulates the team's approach perfectly; made from Ron Millonario 15 year Zacapa XO, cola reduction and egg yolk, the glass is spattered with gold dust and pegged with a fake million-dollar bank note.
Mig & Ølsnedkeren
The Danes love their beer and Aarhus is no exception. Cozy pubs and smart tap rooms dot the streets; a standout is Mig & Ølsnedkeren.
You can forget all about Tuborg (the Budweiser of Denmark) here, however, as this craft beer bar only sells a rotating selection from their own microbrewery as well as other small, local producers. From the 20 taps on offer, go for a classic pale ale or try something more experimental such as the sour yuzu and raspberry.
This bright, modern wine bar is always packed, and with good reason -- it's got the best selection of wines in Aarhus. The staff are very friendly and can help with recommendations from the list which focuses on smaller, lesser-known producers and unusual styles.
There's a nice selection of increasingly popular orange wines -- white wine grapes that are fermented with the skins on to give the wine an orange color and full flavor. Grower Champagnes, which are made by smaller independent producers who also grow their own grapes rather than buy them in, are also very well represented, though there's something to suit everyone.
The wine bar makes for a perfect pre- or post-dinner stop off, but they do serve some snacks, if you want to settle in for the duration.
S'vinbar Klostergade 62, 8000, +45 72 20 66 20
La Cabra Coffee
La Cabra serves the best coffee in town from its two locations, one in the Latin Quarter and another right inside the train station. With modern Scandinavian design and an internationally acclaimed coffee roaster, which only uses beans sourced directly from small producers, La Cabra takes coffee very seriously indeed.
Of course, they do an impeccable flat white, but their skills extend to the kitchen too: Freshly baked sourdough bread and a selection of cakes and pastries, including a must-try cinnamon bun, make it a favorite among sweet tooths.
Out on the town
Escape the city and enjoy wildlife, including friendly deer, at Marselisborg Deer Park.
Dating from the 14th century, the Latin Quarter is the beating heart of Aarhus and the area most visitors will head to first. You can easily lose a few hours here wandering the pretty cobbled streets and stopping at the many boutique fashion shops, jewelers, cafes, bars and restaurants.
Graven, a street that runs east to west, is the main drag but all the little side streets that run off it are worth exploring too, with the Pustervig Torv square providing a good place to stop and relax in between.
Spend just a few hours wandering around Aarhus, and you'll surely glimpse the ARoS museum. Topped with a rooftop installation by Olafur Eliasson, the "Rainbow Panorama" is a 150-meter-long circular -- and most colorful -- walkway.
It can be spotted from most points around town. Impressive from afar, it's even better from the inside where you can look down on the city through colored glass that slowly moves through the full color spectrum as you walk through it.
The "Rainbow Panorama" at ARoS Museum is impressive from afar but even cooler from the inside.
The museum itself is the largest art gallery in Northern Europe and is the most visited in all of Scandinavia, so it's an essential stop on any Aarhus itinerary.
Along with regular touring exhibitions, there's an impressive permanent collection featuring both Danish and international artists such as Grayson Perry, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
ARoS, Aros Allé 2, 8000, +45 8730 6600
A welcome respite in summer months, Harbor Bath is open Saturdays and Sundays and is free to the public.
Aarhus' spectacular Harbor Bath is a triangular floating complex featuring a rectangular 50-meter-long swimming pool, a circular diving pool, square children's pools and two saunas.
Only the bravest visitors would dare jump in during the winter months, but in summer when the country enjoys 17 hours of daylight and warm temperatures, a refreshing dip in the ocean is highly recommended.
It's open every Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to midnight, entry is free and there are lifeguards on duty.
Marselisborg Deer Park and Ballehage Beach
About a 15-minute bike ride south of the city is a pretty wildlife park where deer roam around among the trees. They're used to human contact and are particularly fond of raw carrots, which they will happily eat straight from your hands.
Located on the coast, the park makes for a great escape just outside the city, especially when combined with a walk along the Ballehage Beach.
In the summer, the beach is popular with sunbathers and swimmers due to the long stretch of white sand and calm clear water. There's no lifeguard but there are toilets and changing facilities and a 66-foot-long jetty that extends into the sea allowing people to dive straight into the ocean.
The roof of Moesgard Museum resembles the wing of an airplane and is a lovely place to explore.
Courtesy of Moesgaard museum
A bit farther south from the wildlife park is the Moesgard Museum, which is worth visiting for the architecture alone.
The exterior of the building is dominated by a thick concrete roof that appears to grow out of the landscape. Resembling the wing of a plane, the roof is a place for visitors to explore too. Inside, the multi-levelled space houses exhibitions that explore the early prehistory of human civilization.
Where to stay
If there's one area where Aarhus falls behind Copenhagen slightly, it's the city's hotel scene, which hasn't fully caught up with the high standards set by the capital.
One of the better options is Hotel Oasia, which has well designed public spaces that feature polished concrete floors offset with tanned leather sofas and chairs. The rooms themselves are very small so it's not a hotel to relax in, but with a central location just two minutes from the train station, it's an ideal base to explore the city.
Invest in an Aarhus Card for free access to 25 of the city's top museums and attractions and travel on the airport bus and city public transportation. The card can be purchased for different time periods (449DKK, or $70, for 48 hours, for example), and with a one-way ticket on the airport bus costing around 115DKK, it's a no-brainer purchase.